What comes to mind when you think of bologna? Maybe it’s the iconic bologna sandwich on white bread with a glass of cold sweet tea, or perhaps it’s delicious, sweet slices of Lebanon bologna and cheddar cheese on a cracker. Whatever you know about bologna, it’s time to expand your understanding of this classic lunchmeat that has its origins in ancient Rome and is available today in many varieties and preparation methods. At S. Clyde Weaver, we make bologna that brings the best this lunchtime treat has to offer into every bite.
The History of Bologna
Bologna may seem like a quintessentially American lunchmeat, but bologna’s origins trace back to Italy and even to ancient Rome. Romans enjoyed a type of salt-cured sausage that received its distinctive flavor from myrtle berries — a spice you’ll still find in many types of bologna today. One image from ancient Rome shows a person preparing this sausage by mixing meat and spices using a mortar.
Though we don’t know too much about this early form of bologna, we do know that the bologna many Americans enjoy is a direct descendant of mortadella, a sausage created in Bologna, a city in Northern Italy. The name mortadella comes from the Latin words for “myrtle” and “mortar,” which reference the signature spice and the method used to make the meat. Of course, the American term “bologna” or the phonetic spelling “baloney” directly references this famous sausage’s city of origin.
Mortadella was already a celebrated regional delicacy in Europe in the Middle Ages, and it continues to be the city’s culinary claim to fame. Mortadella was initially a food for the rich and powerful, but it’s a resourceful way of creating something delicious with remaining pork trimmings, and curing it allows it to last — a crucial benefit before refrigeration became common.
Considering how popular mortadella was in Europe, it’s no wonder the sausage caught on quickly in America, as well. Italian immigrants brought their culinary heritage with them, and the signature sausage found its way into American delicatessen shops. Not surprisingly, we Americans put our unique twist on the Italian favorite.
When most Americans think of bologna, they likely picture Oscar Mayer bologna in its signature red containers. Oscar Mayer is a German-American largely credited with Americanizing bologna on a commercial scale. Americans came to know bologna as an economical lunchmeat with a smooth, consistent texture. The flavorings may differ somewhat from mortadella, but some of the signature spices are still there.
While many Americans are most familiar with this type of bologna, companies like S. Clyde Weaver still create authentic bologna styles that are more akin to the Italian and early American versions. The main difference in these artisanal bolognas is in the quality of ingredients and the curing methods.
Another fascinating fact about the word “baloney” in America is that it became a slang term for something nonsensical or fraudulent. A similar word is “malarkey.” So, why did we start associating a delicious lunchmeat with nonsense? The answer isn’t clear, but we do know that Alfred E. Smith, a politician and governor of New York, popularized the phrase in the 1930s when he used it to criticize bureaucracy in Washington.
This slang term has stuck around in American vocabulary, but it wasn’t the first creative use of the word. In the 1920s, “baloney” was another way to describe an inexperienced boxer.
What Is Bologna Made Of?
So, what is in bologna? Even people who consider themselves fans of this iconic sausage may not know much about what goes into it.
Bologna often gets a bad rap for being “mystery meat,” but the truth is not mysterious. This reputation mainly comes from the fact that bologna meat has historically included animal parts, such as organs, that may not make it into other products. There isn’t anything bad for you about these types of meat, and indeed, organ meat can be highly nutritious. However, many people feel relieved to know this isn’t the norm for all bologna. Some types of bologna stick to higher-quality cuts of meat.
The ingredients in bologna can vary widely, but you can expect to see some staples in most bologna recipes, including the following.
- Meat: The main ingredient in bologna is ground meat, which could be any combination of pork, beef, chicken and turkey or only one of those meats. You can even find bologna made of venison or other game meat. Higher-end bolognas include high-quality cuts of meat, while more affordable grocery store varieties may incorporate lower-quality trimmings labeled as “variety meats” or “byproducts.”
- Fat: As with any sausage, fat is also an essential ingredient that adds to the flavor and texture.
- Water: Most bologna varieties contain a good deal of moisture, thanks to the addition of water or stock. The liquid, meat and fat blend to create an emulsified mixture.
- Pickling spices: Various bologna recipes have unique flavor combinations, but some of the most common bologna seasonings are traditional pickling spices. These include black pepper, nutmeg, allspice, celery seed and coriander.
- Myrtle berry: In addition to the pickling spices, another spice gives bologna its characteristic flavor: myrtle berry. This berry is indigenous to the Mediterranean and has a bitter, spicy flavor profile that includes hints of citrus, juniper and rosemary.
- Sugar: Bologna ingredients typically include a sweetener, as well. It could be white or brown sugar or, in some cases, corn syrup. Sugar adds to the flavor, of course, but it can also serve as a preservative.
- Cure: Bologna also needs preservatives such as salt or chemicals to turn it into a cured meat product. Smoking also helps preserve bologna, but many store-bought varieties will merely include liquid smoke to add the smoky flavor.
The Different Types of Bologna
Bologna sausage comes in various types. You’ll find some bologna labeled according to the type of meat included if it is not a blend. For example, you may see beef bologna alongside original bologna at the store. Beyond these fundamental distinctions, you’ll find signature varieties of bologna in America and in other parts of the world. Let’s look at some of the common bologna types, including mortadella, German bologna, polony, Lebanon bologna, ring bologna, rag bologna and sweet bologna.
Mortadella is the original bologna and is still widely available in Italy today. This sausage includes finely ground pork, fat, wine, pistachios and a spice blend that differs from recipe to recipe. Some traditional recipes contain myrtle berries, while others use only salt and pepper. The cubed fat in mortadella does not get blended in, so unlike American bologna, mortadella has a mottled appearance when cut. With each slice, you should see pieces of fat, pistachios and peppercorns.
To earn the official Mortadella di Bologna label, sausage makers must adhere to specific guidelines. For example, the sausage must have a pork-to-fat ratio of 7-to-3, and each slice should have evenly distributed pieces of fat. Italians take their sausage seriously, and mortadella distinguishes itself from other well-known Italian sausages like prosciutto or salami in that it’s moist instead of dry-cured. Sausage makers slow-cook mortadella and spray it with water at the end to add moisture.
Germany is another country we need to visit on our world bologna tour. So, what is German bologna, beyond being bologna made in Germany? This variety of meat is famous for its garlic flavor. Germans call this signature bologna Fleischwurst. In the U.S., you may find this style of bologna labeled garlic bologna or garlic ring bologna.
Germans also enjoy Italienische Mortadella, as they call it, so this is the most popular type of bologna for many Germans.
Some countries call bologna polony. Polony is popular in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Polony is typically a smoked meat made from pork and beef. It’s easy to spot polony in international grocery stores, since it comes wrapped in a bright red or orange skin.
The most traditional way to serve polony is as cold cuts, similar to American bologna. However, New Zealanders can also purchase polony in the form of small cocktail sausages and serve them boiled.
Another popular variety of bologna is Lebanon bologna. This bologna doesn’t get its name from the Western Asian country, so what is Lebanon bologna? It takes its name from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Dutch typically make this sausage with aged beef and spices like black pepper, white pepper, mace and nutmeg, then smoke it. Lebanon bologna’s flavor profile is smoky and tart. It is a semi-dry sausage, meaning it’s more akin to summer sausage than bologna most Americans are likely used to.
Lebanon bologna is a beloved treat throughout Southeast Pennsylvania. Lebanon County is so enthusiastic about its signature sausage that the county drops a giant bologna rather than a crystal-covered ball to ring in the New Year.
Ring bologna usually comes in a narrow casing, and curves into a semicircle, which is how it got the name ring bologna. This presentation makes ring bologna look more similar to smoked sausage than bologna sandwich meat that comes in large slices. A narrower diameter also allows for a more intense smoky flavor, since the smoke permeates the meat more thoroughly.
This smaller size makes ring bologna an excellent choice for snacking with cheese and crackers or including on a charcuterie board. Rather than buying ring bologna in slices, you’ll typically find it sold in whole links, so you can either slice it or cut it into chunks. You can also find ring bologna sold pickled in bottles.
Rag bologna is native to West Tennessee, and you aren’t likely to find it in other parts of the country far outside this region. Rag bologna gets its name from the fact that it traditionally came wrapped in cloth. This variety of bologna contains a higher level of fat and more filler than other bolognas, making it even more economical for early farmers looking for ways to produce as much food as possible from each hog they butchered.
The fillers in rag bologna include flour, cereal and milk solids. Another unique thing about rag bologna is that sausage makers soak it in lactic acid and then dip it in paraffin wax. Tennesseans and others typically enjoy rag bologna on sandwiches or smoked and barbecued.
Nearly any bologna variety will have some degree of sweetness, since most bologna recipes include some form of sugar. However, most standard bologna is predominantly savory. Some types of bolognas, however, have a more pronounced sweet flavor. You might find these types of bolognas sold as sweet bologna.
Sometimes, you’ll see Lebanon bologna labeled as sweet bologna. You may also see farm-style sweet bologna that has a tangy flavor similar to Lebanon bologna. On the other hand, old-fashioned sweet bologna does not have an acidic quality — it’s all sweet and smoky, which perfectly fits some bologna-lovers’ taste.
How Do People Make Bologna?
There are various methods for preparing bologna. Let’s look at an example sequence of steps most sausage makers and factories use to create this meat.
- Blending ingredients: Bologna makers start with finely minced or ground meat. American bologna producers often process the meat until it is exceptionally smooth. Machine mixers blend the processed meat with fat, spices and water. Then, each artisan or manufacturer puts their signature touch on the bologna’s flavor profile by using a unique combination of ingredients.
- Filling casings: As with most other types of sausage, the mixture of meat now goes into casings. Traditionally, these casings were animal intestines. Some butchers still use this natural option, but most manufacturers today use chemically derived casings, such as collagen or plastic. For large bologna slices, manufacturers use large, round casings or cylindrical ones with a large diameter. For ring bologna, they use long, narrow casings.
- Cooking and preserving: The bologna is raw at this point, so the manufacturer needs to cook and preserve it somehow. Some people merely heat bologna through to cook it. Artisinal bologna may go into a smoker, which both cooks and adds to the preservation of bologna. Some cooked bologna goes through a pickling process, meaning the manufacturer places small bologna links in a jar with vinegar and pickling spices. Once sealed, the container has a remarkable shelf life.
- Slicing and packaging: Larger bologna sausages not sold whole have another step left in the process. They must get sectioned off, then go through a machine that cuts even slices of bologna. The equal stacks of slices then go into individual packages for sale in grocery stores.
Ways of Preparing and Enjoying Bologna
Bologna comes precooked, so you can eat it straight out of the package with no fanfare. However, there are many ways you can use bologna to create delicious meals and snacks. Let’s look at some of the most popular methods of preparing and enjoying bologna in America.
1. Classic Cold-Cut Sandwich
One quintessential option is a cold deli sandwich. There may be nothing more American than a thick slice of bologna between two pieces of white bread. Add a slathering of mayonnaise, cheese, some lettuce and a juicy piece of tomato, and you have yourself the perfect lunchtime treat. Cold sandwiches are especially popular in the summer, when people are less interested in hot food or want a brown-bag lunch to take to the beach or on a picnic.
2. Fried Bologna Sandwich
Just as iconic as the cold cut is the fried bologna sandwich. This sandwich is especially beloved at diners and in homes in the Midwest, Appalachia and the South. As with the classic cold-cut sandwich, it usually features white bread and simple condiments like mayonnaise or mustard. To make this sandwich, you place bologna slices on a hot skillet to heat them through and let them start to brown on both sides.
3. Bologna Salad
Bologna salad is similar to ham salad and is a favorite sandwich spread for many Americans. You may find this sandwich spread sold at deli counters, but some cooks make a homemade version. You start with finely chopped bologna, which you can achieve by placing chunks in a food processor or chopper. Then, stir in mayonnaise or dressing and other add-ins like chopped boiled eggs, pickle relish and seasonings and mix well. Bologna salad makes a tasty snack with crackers or a hearty sandwich filling.
4. Bologna Breakfast Cups
As more Americans are looking for ways to enjoy the foods they love with fewer carbs, breakfast — with its toast, pancakes, waffles and muffins — can be a challenge. However, one delicious low-carb recipe uses bologna as a cup to hold eggs and other ingredients of your choice. All you have to do is fold thin slices of bologna into the cups on a muffin pan, crack eggs in, add some cheese or seasonings and let them bake in the oven. Some people also enjoy a simple pan-fried slice of bologna with breakfast.
5. Pasta Salad
Quality bologna, like the varieties you’ll find in S. Clyde Weaver’s shop, is also worthy of inclusion in any dish where you may use other types of semi-dry sausages like salami. For instance, you can chop up bologna and sprinkle chunks into a pasta salad to provide delicious flavor and delightful texture. Add in some cubed or shredded cheese, cut vegetables and your favorite dressing, and you have a flavorful cold pasta salad perfect for summer entertaining.
6. Charcuterie Board
Another elevated way to enjoy bologna is alongside other meats on a charcuterie board. Following some basic principles, you can make a charcuterie board that is sure to wow your guests, whether you’re having a casual get-together or a more formal dinner party. Bologna is an excellent addition to a charcuterie board, but of course, you should opt for artisanal bologna and not the mass-produced kind that is more appropriate for a sandwich. You can slice or cube the bologna and place it alongside complementary cheeses and bread or crackers.
Delicious Smoked Bologna From S. Clyde Weaver
At S. Clyde Weaver, our bologna is in a far different league than mass-produced grocery store varieties. If you want to taste bologna made with high-quality ingredients and traditional methods and smoked to perfection, check out our online store. You’ll love eating our artisanal bologna on a sandwich, as a high-protein snack or as a bold addition of flavor to your charcuterie board.
We offer several bologna varieties, so you can try them all and decide which is your favorite. Each type has a unique flavor profile, but all are delicious. While you’re at it, browse our extensive selection of other meats, cheeses and Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies.